The Utah Legislature called a special session last December to replace the voter-approved medical marijuana law with new legislation. Now, there could be additional changes in yet another special session for lawmakers.
Utah lawmakers replaced Proposition 2 with House Bill 3001, the Utah Medical Cannabis Act. The act establishes seven private cannabis pharmacies and a state-run central fill location, which provides cannabis to county health departments to distribute. But some county attorneys raised concerns with the state, saying they’re advising their health departments not to participate in the distribution because it pre-empts federal law, which classifies cannabis as a schedule one drug, on par with heroin and LSD.
Utah Senate Communications Director Aundrea Peterson says HB 3001’s sponsor, Sen. Evan Vickers, proposes amending the bill to increase the number of private licenses available from seven to 12, while doing away with a state-run central fill station and county health department participation. Peterson says the private pharmacies will do all the distribution, while the state continues to oversee the program.
Christine Stenquist from patient advocacy group Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, says while removing county health departments from the bill addresses an issue TRUCE highlights in a lawsuit filed against the state, it still falls short of what Prop 2 would have allowed.
“The way the language was written, we could have one dispensary per county," Stenquist said. "We have 29 counties in the state and up to one dispensary for every 150,000 in our population, so a city like Salt Lake would have up to six dispensaries, potentially. To add all that up and you were looking at close to the potential of 40 dispensaries throughout the state that would have actually helped service the patients that we have always wanted to service.”
Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough has had hesitations around HB 3001. Like other county health departments, Bullough isn’t sure how he can follow state law in distributing cannabis while going against federal law, and what that would mean for funding. Bullough says the logistics of it—just finding enough space for distribution at the health department—weren’t clear. He’s hoping the special session will provide for more clarity on what role—if any—the health department will play, and he wants to see Utahns receive access to the treatment option they supported.
“Residents voted for a proposition—they did that for a reason and that is to meet a need, and so I would still like to see that need met," Bullough said. "As I've said, I've not heard any conversations in any arena, publicly or privately, that has suggested that that is anyone's intent is to do anything other than meet that need. So, this is a product that appears to benefit people, and so I'd like to see that benefit realized.”
Stenquist says she’s not comfortable pulling the lawsuit yet—she’ll have to see what happens during the special session. Among the county health department distribution system, TRUCE also takes issue with several other parts of the bill, including limitations on dosage forms. Although laws are often amended, Stenquist says the legislature is better off fixing everything now and making the program functional for patients and distributors.
“Because of how poorly written and how poorly this implementation process is going to be, let's do more than just minor fixes,” Stenquist said.
At his monthly news conference last week, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he’s not sure when he’ll call the legislature into a special session. While he believes Congress should change the federal classification of cannabis to better allow states to run their medical cannabis programs, the state plans to meet its deadline for rolling out the program.
“I think we're on the right road going in the right direction," Herbert said. "I'm not worried about it. I think we’ll make sure that the product is available on March 1, 2020 for those who need it.”
Proposition 2 saw majority support in both Summit and Wasatch Counties in the Nov. 2018 election.